When I sat down to hash out this list, I came to the sobering realization that when it comes to bike stuff, be it motocross, street, whatever -- I’m still pretty green. My gearhead passions have always treaded on four wheels. But I’m looking to evolve, to expand my horizons. And with Sunday's premiere of Jesse James is a Dead Man just a few days away, what better time is there to dive into the death-defying world of motorcycle stunts?
Source: Ralph Crane/Getty Images
Probably the most striking feature in many of these feats -- as opposed to most other stunt performances -- is the apparent total lack of concern for injury and/or death. Flaming hoops, shark tanks, lack of safety gear -- whatever they can find to up the ante a little is (well, was) just icing on the cake. Of course, going helmetless like some of these guys seems like you’re giving Darwin a freebie, but maybe that’s just my semi-bionic leg doing the talking there. Cars have roll cages and tightrope walkers have mattresses to land on if they fall. On a motorcycle, it's you, the bike, and the ground.
Undoubtedly, you’ve got to have brass balls even to consider doing some of this stuff, but the adrenaline rush of traversing the line between life and death is something that thrill junkies need in order to get anything accomplished.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that chicks dig scars, and the media loves it when people are willing to flirt with death on live television. So with that in mind, I think we’d be doing a great disservice to the entire motorcycle daredevil community if we didn’t begin with a nod to the first guy who saw the fountains at Caesar’s Palace and thought, “I need to launch over that on a Harley Davidson.”
5. Evel Knievel Jumps the Fountains at Caesar's Palace
Things have come a long way since Evel Knievel’s heyday, but that doesn’t mean his career was any less spellbinding. Sure, guys have jumped much further since he did, but Evel was the one who made it cool. The sheer fact that he did his stunts on a Harley Davidson which was clearly not designed for launching over dozens of cars (as the sheer lack of suspension travel indicated) meant that, for Evel Knievel, there was never going to be a pleasant landing, successful or not. He just didn't care.
Evel’s career started to really take off toward the late 1960s -- an ideal era -- as America’s newfound obsession with motorsport and spectacle were coming into full swing. Combined with Evel’s keen sense of showmanship and sincerely badass attitude, it’s not hard to see why he became the icon of motorcycle stuntmen for decades to come.
Wikipedia sums it up nicely:
While in Las Vegas, Nevada, to watch Dick Tiger fight a middleweight title fight, Knievel first saw the fountains at Caesars Palace and decided to jump them. To get an audience with the casino's CEO Jay Sarno, Knievel created a fictitious corporation called Evel Knievel Enterprises and three fictitious lawyers to make phone calls to Sarno. Knievel also placed phone calls to Sarno claiming to be from ABC-TV and Sports Illustrated inquiring about the jump. Sarno finally agreed to meet Knievel and the deal was set for Knievel to jump the fountains on December 31st, 1967. After the deal was set, Knievel tried to get ABC to air the event live on Wide World of Sports. ABC declined, but said that if Knievel had the jump filmed and it was as spectacular as he said it would be, they would consider using it later.
Knievel used his own money to have actor/director John Derek produce a film of the Caesars' jump. To keep costs low, Derek used his then-wife Linda Evans as one of the camera operators. It was Evans who filmed Knievel's famous landing. On the morning of the jump, Knievel stopped in the casino and placed a single $100 dollar bet on the blackjack table (which he lost), stopped by the bar and had a shot of Wild Turkey and then headed outside where he was joined by several members of the Caesars staff, as well as two scantily clad showgirls. After doing his normal pre-jump show and a few warm up approaches, Knievel began his real approach. When he hit the takeoff ramp, he felt the motorcycle unexpectedly decelerate. The sudden loss of power on the takeoff caused Knievel to come up short and land on the safety ramp which was supported by a van. This caused the handlebars to be ripped out of his hands as he tumbled over them onto the pavement where he skidded into the Dunes parking lot. As a result of the crash, Knievel suffered a crushed pelvis and femur, fractures to his hip, wrist, and both ankles and a concussion that kept him in a coma for 29 days. After his crash and recovery, Knievel was more famous than ever. ABC-TV bought the rights to the film of the jump, paying far more than they originally would have had they televised the original jump live.
Okay, fast forward to now. Things have changed quite a bit since Knievel’s reign. In the 1980s, the street bike phenomenon began to take shape and with it came a whole new paradigm in motorcycle stunts.
Since street bikes are built for speed and handling on asphalt instead of jumping or riding over uneven surfaces, riders started to invent a new brand of stunts based on strengths of these bikes.
4. Street Bike "Motorcycle Stunts"
Now it's basically impossible to create an argument as to whether or not this is the finest compilation of street bike tricks, but I will say it’s the most inventive I’ve seen - I have yet to find another video where guys rode on the arches of a suspension bridge. Insanity.
I’d love to give credit where credit is due, but stunt riding like this is often unsanctioned and therefore less than legal, so it’s not surprising that details about street bike stunt riders is often scarce. Nonetheless, some impressive stuff.
Source: Stephen Chernin/Stringer/Getty Images
Knievel's long distance motorcycle jumps have also evolved drastically since the 1970s. Riders have transitioned to modified dirt bikes with copious suspension travel, and these changes have made a big difference in what's possible in the world of massive bike jumps.
3. Robbie Maddison Jumps 322 Feet in Las Vegas
Last year, at the Rio All-Suite Hotel in Las Vegas, Australian stunt rider Robbie Maddison set the world record for the longest motorcycle jump at an astounding distance of 322 feet.
It's interesting to note that, while this jump is far longer than anything Knievel ever attempted, all of the drama and instability, especially upon landing, is absent. This certainly does not discount the feat that Robbie accomplished here, but does seem to reinforce that old mantra of "they just don't make 'em like they used to."